Like colorful spring blossoms sprouting up from barren plots of desert, the dusty sidewalk and parking lot next to the Modified Arts gallery is swarming with a noisy, eclectic mix of people: shaggy-haired boys in skinny pants sucking on cigarettes, well-dressed middle-aged art collectors toting bottles of water, glitter-smeared teenage girls in tank tops gabbing on cell phones.
Then, something catches the crowd's attention, and the loud chatter is reduced to a chorus of curious, excited murmurs. A gang of about two dozen hipster guys and girls on outlandish bicycles cruises east on Roosevelt, drawing a lot of stares.
One by one the bikes slowly pass by, each different from the next. Some have handlebars two feet high, some are stretched out and ride low to the ground, some have front forks raked out like chopper motorcycles -- and some have all of the above. The one thing they have in common is extreme exaggeration.
These cutting-edge rides are mobile sculpture, the latest wave of expression among creative young Phoenicians who thrive on the do-it-yourself ethos. Not content to ride pricey "cookie-cutter bikes," which they so often scorn, these custom bicycle builders get a thrill out of making and riding their own designs, which are often constructed from metal scraps. Their aesthetic is inspired by the tough-looking customized motorcycles of the 1960s and 1970s, but it also includes whimsical design ideas that are purely tongue-in-cheek.
Because the small but flourishing scene is so new, some of the builders are just getting to know each other, while others with coincidentally similar approaches to bike building are still working independently. Sometimes they actually do get a chance to meet up, particularly during the First Friday art walks in Phoenix, the Final Friday art events in Tempe, and on random weekends. But even when they cruise together, it's obvious that each individual has a unique vision of how to construct a radical ride.
Potential buyers often approach the bike builders when they're out cruising, sometimes making offers that are too good to refuse. The choppers are labors of love, though, and don't come cheaply from people who've put a lot of elbow grease into them. Until the scene grows into something more cohesive, word of mouth will continue to be these builders' best form of advertising.
Building the bikes is sometimes a source of extra cash, sometimes just a hobby, and sometimes even a political statement. But above all, it's a way of life that blends the necessities of transportation with the irresistible urge to create art.
Ryan Murray has a lot to do with the sporadic custom bicycle sightings in downtown Phoenix and Tempe in the past several months. Many of the wild rides are his own creations, built from scratch.
"We try to do First Friday every month -- it's turned into a tradition," says Murray, who's majoring in sculpture and film at Scottsdale Community College. "That's a lot of fun because it's my artwork moving around, and everybody gets to see it -- I get a lot of attention. But I usually don't get to go to very many galleries because of all the bikes."
Clad in a baggy tee shirt and shorts, the wavy-haired, athletic 22-year-old exudes a California surfer kind of energy -- laid-back, but fearless.
That impression is reinforced by the enormous snowboard ramp in the backyard of the house he shares with two roommates. It's at least 15 or 20 feet tall and covered in dirty white carpet. Murray says he often soaps it down and hoses it off, then launches off of it on his snowboard.
Murray's always been into bikes. From the looks of the bicycle and motorcycle posters adorning his living room walls, he's drawn to anything on wheels. "But I didn't start building bikes until September, when I moved out of my parents' house," he admits.
Over the past five years, Murray learned welding from making skate rails and lowering cars, and now it's his main source of income. While he also tinkers around with Vespa scooters, Murray says it was important for him to learn how to build bikes. "I figured I should probably mess around with bicycles first, before I mess around with a motor."
In 10 short months, he's built more than 20 of them under the name Antic -- some for his friends, many for himself. He hasn't sold any yet, but it's not for anyone's lack of interest. With prices that climb up to $800, depending on the bike, "Everyone wants one but nobody has the money," he says.